Affordable Housing: Thinking Practically
Housing affordability is a big problem in the United States—and not just the big cities. Patrick Bourckel recently outlined for us the shape of this problem and some theological underpinnings for Christian thought about affordable housing. Now I would like to talk practically about how Christians can think about combating the issue. Affordable housing serves as an example for a larger phenomenon: Christian nonprofits are not simply an alternative to government action. Rather, the structures created by government can enable—or when designed poorly, constrain—the ability of Christian nonprofits to effectively carry out their ministry.
Almost all intentionally affordable housing in the US is built using the Low Income Housing Tax Credit, or LIHTC. Rather than a public housing program, the US decides to incentivize the private construction of affordable housing via the tax code with this policy. There are dozens of Christian nonprofit organizations led by people who feel passionately moved by the problem of housing unaffordability and instability for millions in the US, and take up the development of housing on themselves. Compelled by theological visions like those Patrick shared with ELI, they employ the LIHTC to construct affordable housing that is frequently impressive in its quality, intentionally making common spaces available and collaborating with other Christian nonprofits to include after-school tutoring and other services in the developments.
These ministries are doing incredible work, and you might imagine that they could be the solution to the affordable housing crisis. But there comes to be a problem: we all know too well that money for Christian nonprofits is tight, especially if those Christian nonprofits are not themselves churches. Christian housing nonprofits could never pull together the absolutely massive capital it takes to build affordable housing on their own: they have to rely on LIHTC in order to do their ministry at all. The line between “private charity” and government intervention here all but dissolves: Christian nonprofits are limited by the pitiful size of LIHTC, coming in at only about $8 billion—less than five hundredths of a percent of annual US GDP, and not even close to commensurate to the proportion of Americans who cannot afford housing. Christian charities have to compete for this money, too, with private developers who are willing to commit fraud in order to get ahold of LIHTC funds. Since these are private developers, it’s much harder for the government to see just how much fraud is going on, resulting in a wildly inefficient use of even the meager funds the government provides.
Christians must imagine how we can change our approach to the problem of housing. Having private charitable institutions do the heavy lifting of going against capital-rich developers out to make a profit on high housing prices is only going to result in thousands of families finding themselves without somewhere to live every year. So what are some practical solutions to this problem that Christians can get on board with?
Housing first approaches to homelessness. “Housing first” approaches prioritize getting the chronically homeless into transitional housing (not a shelter) as soon as possible to provide a stable platform for helping them resolve the issues that typically drive people to be chronically homelessness. For the majority of homeless people, who are transitionally homeless—many of whom are families going through acute financial difficulty, people leaving abusive relationships, and other such sudden shocks—the solution is prevention as much as possible, absolutely minimizing the amount of time people spend on the streets, in their car, or in a crowded shelter.
Being willing to have mixed development styles in your neighborhood. Residents of well-off neighborhoods frequently protest the building of multi-family housing in their neighborhoods, often explicitly saying they don’t want to live around the “kind of people” who live in multi-family housing. Christians can and should be precisely advocates to those “kind of people” at our local zoning boards and in our own neighborhoods.
Supporting public housing. The most sustainable long-term solution to the housing crisis in the US is to build good-quality housing publicly. Though public housing most often bring up images of the depressing towers surrounded by seas of concrete in cities like Chicago, public housing absolutely does not have to work this way. This excellent proposal suggests the building of mixed-income housing across American cities through partnerships between municipalities and the federal government, bypassing the fraud and inefficiency of LIHTC.
These steps are not the only possibilities—the ministries currently doing affordable housing under the LIHTC are still doing good work and are well worth giving to. But committing to this wider range of postures and actions can bring us beyond the narrow thinking about private vs. public action in economic issues. The best way forward is by engaging in the structural, the local, and the personal. We desperately need more homes that families can afford, but we also need compassionate Christians who are willing to live among people who struggle to keep their heads above water. Clear policy, yes, but that policy requires us to become people of love and understanding.